Gaga for UNGA?

Lawrence Haddad shares his views and key takeaways from the meetings at the annual UN General Assembly, which took place from 17 to 22 September 2017.

This past week I have been at the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings in New York.  This is when more than 100 Heads of State and Government come to the UN HQ, setting off a scramble to meet senior leaders from governments, development agencies, NGOs and businesses.  It has been described by the New York Times as “speed dating from hell” and “the world’s most tedious cocktail party”.

I found it neither of these things.  The speed dating bit is true, but if you organise it well enough (thanks to Laure Walsh in my office!), it is speed dating with who you really want to meet rather than with people you have to put up with.  Hell can be avoided.  And the need to connect on a human level, explore an alliance, or close a deal within 15-20 minutes is quite exhilarating.

And as for cocktail parties, for a boundary introvert/extrovert like me they were easy to avoid.

All in all I had “bilateral” meetings with about 30 people and went to 6-7 events. I even bumped into a member of Nigerian royalty in an elevator in my very modest midtown hotel.

So what were the takeaway points for me?  As usual these are my views, not GAIN’s, and they are partial based on who I talked to, and are coloured by my own experiences and biases.

  1. Hunger, Hidden. Five UN agencies had just released the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (by the way, kudos to FAO, WFP and IFAD for welcoming UNICEF and WHO to join the report writing, and congratulations to those two for embracing food issues more strongly than ever before). Despite the report showing an increase in the numbers of “undernourished people” (the hunger numbers which are based on food balance sheets, shaped by income distribution data)–the first such rise since 2007-8, there was really very little mention of this in any meetings or events. Is the rise real? What is causing it? What do we need to do about it? I found the lack of urgency on this to be alarming. Perhaps I went to the wrong meetings, but even in my bilateral meetings few people mentioned it. Greater leadership is needed. I know the Secretary General has a lot to deal with, but what is more profound than not having enough to eat?
  2. Communicating non-communicable diseases. Prior to UNGA week there had been an announcement of the Bloomberg, Zuckerman, Gates USD 225 million initiative, Resolve, to address the leading risk factors (e.g. poor diet) linked to non communicable diseases (NCDs) such as coronary heath disease, diabetes and strokes. Perhaps this led to a buzz, perhaps the consciousness around obesity is reaching a tipping point, but there was a lot more talk about these issues than I expected.
  3. Business is no longer a dirty word in nutrition circles. Everywhere I went (and even in the most unlikely places) I heard about the need to engage critically with business if we want to make a serious dent in malnutrition in all its forms.  The world has moved on a lot in the last 10-15 years on this issue. Now there is an increased recognition by those in the public sector that business is deeply involved in nutrition through food markets and the wider economy. Conclusion: if we want them to do better things for nutrition and stop doing bad things, the best thing is to engage. And you don’t change someone’s head unless they are in the room, as the African saying goes. But big food businesses are also reeling from, and sometimes driving, the rapidity with which consumer food tastes are changing, in most of North America and Europe and increasingly worldwide.  Poor diet is one of the main  causes of poor health. And they don’t want to be seen as the next Big Tobacco.  We should engage, inform, and find alignment of interests. And if there are none, let’s be clear about it and not engage until there is.
  4. Islands in the stream. In light of a recent blog on the need to build on past commitments, I was disappointed not to hear more about the Decade of Action for Nutrition, Nutrition for Growth, the Global Nutrition Report or the ICN2 Framework for Action.  Call me old fashioned, but if the stepping stones are laid down, we should make sure they are close together and actually lead to where we want to get to.  At the moment they are simply islands in the stream. And this gets back to first point in this blog.  We need more and stronger leadership in nutrition to build on a decade of remarkable progress.  But from where?  I have my views, but that is for another blog!

So am I gaga for UNGA? I found it helpful, and that was because GAIN colleagues, more organised than me, created a large and excellent set of bilateral meetings, interspersed with a few interesting events—not the other way around.

And the member of Nigerian royalty? She gave me her business card and said see you next year. Let’s see.


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Published 25 September 2017